Picture the scene. It is 9:32 PM on March 30th 2010 in the Allianz Arena, Munich, and as Bayern’s Croatian striker slots away a tie-changing goal, an Englishman collapses in pain, clutching at a fatally wounded ankle.
United fans bemoaning Evra’s defensive lapse immediately have a greater worry, for as Sky’s all-seeing camera’s pan back up the field, they come to rest on the prostrate figure of Wayne Rooney.
Every United fan has his heart in his mouth; Rooney is the talisman, the inspiration, the man who has, in all honesty, been driving the team forward. And they have a crucial battle with Chelsea on Saturday lunchtime.
Just yards from Rooney, a Bulgarian stands, a weight already beginning to form on his shoulders. He’s seen the look of pain, he knows that his strike partner is, in all probability, out for weeks. That the goal scoring burden will now fall squarely on his shoulders. Perhaps his mind even wanders back to his price tag. Dimitar Berbatov knows he’s been playing far from his best, the fans are starting to turn, the press slating his “languid” style.
As it happens, Berbatov was the lone striker for that crucial game with Chelsea, and the worst fear of United fans everywhere proved correct; hamstrung by a lack of confidence, Berbatov was slow, cumbersome, lacking in cutting edge. Crucially, he spurned a late, 92nd minute chance to earn United a point, a chance that a fit, firing, Rooney would have buried. Many United fans had had enough. They wanted rid of the languid Bulgarian, wanted him sold that summer. They felt he’d had two seasons, and, at £30.75 million, simply hadn’t shown enough.
Luckily, the manager ignored them. As did Berbatov. Realising just how crucial it was for him to take some responsibility, realising just how crucial he was to United in the absence of Rooney (and perhaps realising that he’d let the team down) Berbatov, rather than spending all summer watching the World Cup (where, incidentally, he would’ve seen Rooney’s continuing poor form), spent it instead working on his fitness, running 6 miles in the morning and afternoon every day to ensure that, this time, he was ready, ready to take responsibility.
When the season started, United fans saw a new Berba. Fit, firing, full of running. This was the Berbatov in whom Ferguson invested so much money, time and effort. His lob against Chelsea in the Community Shield spoke of what was to come. He hit the ground running, with 6 goals in 7 game (including a match-winning hat-trick against Liverpool) at the start of the season, and hasn’t looked back.
Yes, he suffered a drought of ten games, but Rooney’s drought -at least from open play-stretched back to March, when we come full circle back to Rooney’s injury, which brought his run of goals and form to an abrupt, sudden end, forcing Berbatov to realise just how important it was to regain his old Tottenham form.
There is little doubt that Rooney’s injury has been the making of Berbatov in a United shirt; he has fired United to the top of the table, (a position we wouldn’t be in without his efforts at the start of the season), currently leads the Premier League goal scoring charts and has already beaten last season’s tally of twelve Premiership goals. It just took Rooney’s injury to force Berbatov into action, to realise that without Rooney, the other players would be looking to him for a spark up front; there was nowhere to hide, he had to produce.
Every cloud has a silver lining: only after an injury to a rampant Rooney have we seen the best of Berbatov.
Written by Josh Keeling
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